East is East @ Birmingham Rep, Birmingham

directed by
Iqbal Khan
Ayub Khan-Din’s East is East was first seen at Biringham Rep’s studio in 1996.

Having been turned into a successful British film in the intervening years, Iqbal Khan’s revival brings it back to Birmingham; this time to the main house stage.

The semi-autobiographical story focuses on the Khan family who, living in a mixed race household in Leeds in the 1960’s, try, successfully or not, to balance their British identity with the colour of their skin.
Though their roots are in their father’s homeland of Pakistan, their jobs in the family fish and chip shop and their accents thicker than Yorkshire hotpot make their ties back home unclear for most, especially the children.

Patriarch George Khan (Archie Lal), a migrant from Pakistan, travelled to Britain alone and adopted the western business ethos to find his niche in his community as well as a British bride in the form of his battle-scarred northern wife, Ella.

A challenging inter-racial marriage and six children later, George cuts a very different figure, roaming his household like a tyrant, bullying his sons and ordering around the now somewhat downtrodden Ella. His children have reacted to this behavior over the years and learnt to follow their father’s wishes, but after the eldest son, Nazir, refuses to join the family business and moves away to take up the less traditional profession of hairdressing, George feels he is losing control over his family.

To counter this, he decides to arrange a marriage for his two remaining eldest sons to a local businessman’s daughters. The more rebellious son, Tariq, rails against his father when he finds that the deal has been arranged without his consent and tries to break away to what he sees as freedom (Nazir’s home) but it becomes clearer to all of them that no one can really run away from their identity, and that includes their heritage.

The differing characters of the six children show a slice of Asian British culture that is not really explored even in today’s multicultural UK. Meenah is the only girl in the household, which means she has had to adapt and become one of the toughest of the siblings, revelling in cajoling the baby of the family, Sajit. One of the more complex characters, it is difficult to tell if Sajit’s innocent rebellious act of refusing to remove his parka jacket is aimed at his father or the world as a whole. He jeers at his doctor, hides in the coal shed and there is certainly a dark layer to his personality that director Khan hints at before reverting back to the comfort zone of comedy. As with the rest of the family Sajit too is forced to conform, here to Muslim tradition, by having his ‘tickle-tackle’ (as Mr Khan refers to it) circumcised.

Khan does an excellent job of making the characters’ eccentricities appear more than just two-dimensional sitcom characteristics, and considering the time constraints and number of characters he is dealing with, he does latch onto the pulse of the Khan household with some success.

Younger brother Abdul is an embodiment of that, diligent and hardworking on the surface, fulfilling his father’s wishes, but underneath he is overwhelmed by confusion and this side of him is allowed out in one of the play’s most compelling scenes. What starts as a familiar back and forth between siblings becomes something much more moving and profound as Abdul begins to confess to his brother Tariq his inadequacies outside of the family’s insular world and how he relies on his father’s rigidity and the structure of his culture to make him feel safe.

It is nice to see a Muslim character making the case for and embracing his culture as opposed to it choosing him; he may feel isolated in the world, but his faith and family will help him through. This is something he has in common with his father.

Lal plays George as flawed but not unsympathetic man. Though he may act like a chauvinist, he, like his son, is trying to control a world that is often hostile. In fact this production plays it safe at times by making this complex and conflicted man rather too likable. The scenes of domestic violence lack impact and the farcical nature of the play sometimes draws away from the drama, with these scenes even raising laughter from some confused audience members.

There are some great comic performances here, particularly from Simon Hagra who has fun with the play’s surreal elements and from Darren Kuppan, whose cutting manner as Tariq gives some of the slightly outdated comedy an edge. It is in these performances that much of the strength of the play manifests itself. The sense of the family unit, with its playful pushes and shoves and loose-tongued little brothers, all seem to come from a place of reality and this gives it a real sense of warmth.

The stage work is smooth, with props moving in and out of centre stage on conveyor belts, and the cast provide some interesting dance segments to break up the scenes.

Though it may not have the edge of some recent examinations of what it means to be a British Muslim, Khan-Din’s play remains a relevant and entertaining piece of writing, certainly worth reviving for this run and worth revisiting in the future.

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